OTTAWA - Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney, who championed improvements to a federal burial fund for impoverished ex-soldiers, was put in the awkward position Monday of defending his own government's inaction and the fact that over two-thirds of applicants are rejected.
The Last Post Fund, an independent agency that administers a federal funeral and grave-marker program for poor veterans, has turned down 67 per cent of the applications submitted since 2006.
Both the fund and Blaney's own department have lobbied the Harper government to re-define the eligibility criteria and to increase the $3,600 stipend given to families who do qualify, but to no avail.
Blaney says unlike the previous Liberal government, the Conservatives have not cut the fund.
"This is a program for which we have maintained benefits, contrary to the former Liberal government, which made cuts to this program," Blaney told reporters following a ceremony in the Senate to mark the beginning of veterans week. "Our firm intention is to maintain this program. We are covering all the funeral and burial costs and we will keep on this way."
Just over 17 years ago, Jean Chretien's government introduced changes to the Last Post Fund that were aimed at slowing its growth, measures that were later amended in 2000, the last time the federal government overhauled the program meant to give poor veterans a decent burial.
The fund has urged the Harper government to re-write the eligibility criteria, which limit payments to those who fought in the Second War War or Korea or were in receipt of veterans disability benefits, to include more modern veterans. It has also asked for an increase in the stipend.
Over the last two years, the veterans department has proposed an overhaul, estimated to cost between $5 million and $7 million annually, only to be shot down by the cabinet committee that decides what goes into the budget.
The executive director of the fund has praised Blaney and blamed the government.
Ex-soldiers are outraged and Mike Blais, of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, says that kind of penny-pinching treatment is not what members of the military expect when they enlist and put their lives on the line.
"This is completely unacceptable," said Blais. "This is not a matter of cutting. It's not a matter of adding. It's a matter of fulfilling the obligation they have to these people."
He said it's outrageous that the agency has been forced to turn to private fundraising in order to cover the cost of funerals for needy veterans who do not qualify for federal assistance.
"That tells me the criteria needs to be changed immediately and it also tells me that there are Canadians ... that respect the sacred bond with veterans, even if our government does not," said Blais.
The Liberals called the lack of support for the fund "a national disgrace" and pointed out that responses to written questions posed in the House of Commons before the last election said the government was reviewing the program. A year later, when the same question was asked by Liberal Sen. Percy Downe, the government said it was committed to "improvements in a fiscally prudent manner."
MP Sean Casey, the Liberal veterans critic, demanded the government set up a panel to review the level of federal support is appropriate for the families of poor veterans.
He was hotly dismissed by Blaney, who told the Liberals they should be "ashamed to ask this question" given their actions when in power.
New Democrat veterans critic Peter Stoffer said the government should improve the program and there's no excuse not to, given the amount of money spent on photo-op friendly war monument restoration.